The School for American Craftsmen (SAC)
24 Minute Read
The history of the School for American Craftsmen (SAC) can be seen as a microcosm of the history of the post World War II craft movement. Because of this a study of the former can help illuminate the latter. This is especially true of SAC's metalsmithing department were changes over the years in philosophy, curriculum and guiding principles have paralleled those in American metalsmithing in general.
Former faculty member John Prip attributes this close relationship between the two histories to the fact that both the school and the larger metalsmithing movement have changed as society changes. Although clearly a leader in this field, Prip modestly states, "SAC faculty didn't change metalsmithing, society did."
In order to understand the history of the School for American Craftsmen, it is necessary to go back many years to before its founding. Although in the 19th century William Morris led a crafts revival in England and America, the depression of the 1930s undermined much of what he had accomplished. Once again, inexpensive, machinemade goods, poorly designed and executed, caught America's fancy. Fortunately, in the 40s Aileen Vanderbilt Webb accepted the challenge to try to reverse this trend. In doing so, she created a program so thorough and far-reaching that fine crafts' permanent place in society now seems assured. Aided by a large inheritance from her maternal aunt, a copper fortune heiress, Mrs. Webb founded the craft shop America House, and later the American Craftsmen's Council (now the American Craft Council), the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the American Craft Museum), Craft Horizons magazine (no American Craft) and the World Craft Council, as well as the School for American Craftsmen.
The important role this school has played in the history of American metalsmithing can be attributed to the outstanding metalsmiths who have been a part of the school's history. A very abbreviated list includes faculty members: Philip Morton, John Prip, Ronald Pearson (also attended as a student), Hans Christensen and Albert Paley; alumni: Olaf Skoogfors and Svetozar and Ruth Radakovich; and even those who attended very briefly (maybe only a summer course): Fred Fenster, John Paul Miller and Arline Fisch.
Aileen Webb's involvement with crafts began long before the 40s. She was born in1892 into a wealthy, socially prominent family who believed in "service to others." Her father, William Church Osborn, was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and most likely was instrumental in cultivating his daughter's esthetic sense. She became an accomplished, though amateur, potter, water-colorist and enamellist. Like other young women in her social set, especially her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, she was actively involved in social causes, trying to help those less fortunate than herself.
In 1930, seeking a way to help her rural neighbors in Putnam County, New York, who had been hard hit by the depression, she organized a home-based relief project, Putnam County Products, which found a local market for farm goods as well as for pottery, quilts and needlework. Encouraged by the sales of these craft items, Webb expanded the organization into the Handicraft League of America, which in 1940 opened a retail outlet, America House, in Manhattan. From these humble beginnings, in the early 1940s Mrs. Webb established national organization called the American Craftsmen's Council (ACC) to promote and strengthen the burgeoning craft movement.
To the newly formed ACC, Mrs. Webb brought her concern that technology and an economic attitude based on planned obsolescence would mean the end of traditional handcraftsmen. The reigning philosophy that new was good and that each short period must have a new style was antithetical to craft values and esthetics. In the midst of dehumanizing industrialization and mechanization she felt that handcrafts could give society the human dimension it desperately needed.
To train the craftsmen that were necessary for the survival of the craft tradition, the Education Council of the ACC proposed starting the School for American Craftsmen, whose purpose would be "to develop and raise the standards of the hand arts in the United States." The Council trustees realized that if the project was to succeed, the students must be trained in such a way that would enable them to earn an independent living upon leaving school. Therefore, they sought to develop a program that would equip a person to become a producing craftsman, a member of cooperative group, a worker in an industry needing fine skills, a teacher of crafts or a designer for the handmade object.
The trustees believed that if properly trained it would be possible for an individual to become self-supporting through craftsmanship, perhaps earning $35 to $50 per week, and have status as a respected member of the community. Although their financial future would be modest, it was optimistically assumed that "men and women will turn to the hand arts because they will be working at something they like and which will create for them a way of life which will bring happiness." The program would be open to all, but it was thought that the independent lifestyle of a craftsman would be ideally suited to returning disabled veterans.
With no similar program in existence to serve as a model, the trustees had only their idealism and naivete to rely on in establishing school guidelines. It was suggested that the training should be approximately six months or enough time to enable the individual to obtain sufficient knowledge to begin production. To insure the greatest possible flexibility, instruction would be individualized and a student could be accepted into the program at any time of the year.
Realizing that six months might not be quite enough time, the trustees decided that there would be a continuation program. "Certain communities will be made centers for various crafts and opportunities thus presented will be made to men wishing to establish themselves in such communities. Continued aid in training and marketing will be made available to those who wish to return to their home communities."
Because the emphasis of the school was on preparing students to earn a living, it was deemed essential that all teachers be producing craftsmen. School morning would be devoted to theory, technique, tools and understanding design. Courses in marketing and pricing would also be taught. Afternoons would be for production. It would be the teacher's duty to set up and operate a shop which was to be ideally arranged and equipped for large quantity production on a cooperative basis. Student desings were to be judged by a committee of specialists in art and merchandising and if found satisfactory would be put into production. Marketing outlets were to be provided through America House and other recognized craft organizations. The trustees felt it was important to train students in production work because "multiple work, well planned and executed, will bring in a cash return which can be controlled at will and will free a craftsman for creative work of an individual character."
To ensure that students would achieve high artistic expression and quality in their work, it was felt that the term "good product" needed to be defined. It was decided that such a product would be one that had the following attributes: "Beauty of design; well executed technically; functional—must meet a real need of use or decoration; must be part of a 'line' and so usable with other products; must meet fashion trends; and must be a correct price."
With guidelines and a philosophy in hand, the School for American Craftsmen opened at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1944. In 1946 Mrs. Webb decided to move the school to Alfred University in Alfred, New York. The precise reason for the move is unclear but may have been due to the large number of returning vets at Dartmouth, leaving little space for SAC, or perhaps the climate there just did not seem right to Mrs. Webb. In any case, by the time the school moved to Alfred certain changes had taken place. The program now lasted two years, with students attending classes 11 months a year, 40 hours per week, to simulate working in the "real" world. Although producing marketable goods was still the main emphasis of the school, there was no formalized industry-style production system as there had been at Dartmouth. And the continuation program was abandoned.
Regardless of the school's location, it had no problem attracting outstanding faculty and students because of the uniqueness of its program. Although other schools, such as the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, taught crafts, it was as part of a more diversified course of study, usually including painting and sculpture. The School for American Craftsmen was the first to isolate crafts as a full-fledged curriculum and professional endeavor.
One of SAC's early noteworthy students was Ronald Pearson, who enrolled in the school in 1947. Pearson, son of Ralph M. Pearson, an etcher, teacher, writer and art critic, first heard about SAC when a friend gave him an early brochure about the school. "I was fascinated by it," he remembers. "I had always been interested in doing things with my hands." Unable to attend immediately because he was serving in the Merchant Marine, he convinced his sister Lorna to enroll. Her enthusiasm prompted him to follow suit as soon as he was able.
True to the school's founding intentions, in 1947 SAC was a place primarily for servicemen looking for a more meaningful life, Pearson remembers. It was basically a shop to teach production methods with very little else. "You came, and you learned how to do it and to get some kind of stimulation—it was really a first stepping stone," he recalls. "It wasn't intended to do everything for you. This was up to the individual."
Pearson studied under metalsmith Laurits Eichner, Charles Reese and Philip Morton. From the beginning a policy as established by Eichner and Frances Wright Caroé, director of America House (and daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright), to emphasize holloware over jewelry. Reese, a violin maker and musician, was a technically accomplished silversmith, according to Pearson. "He was great at raising but not as creative and open as Morton." It was Morton that had the greatest influence on Pearson in those early years. "He was a fabulous teacher. His emphasis was on design and esthetics." He required his students not only to master technique but to search for the meaning of the forms which were being made.
Not everyone was as pleased with Morton's performance as Pearson and at the end of the academic year Morton was asked to leave. Pearson attributes Morton's departure to the fact that both Morton and Mrs. Caroé possessed very strong personalities which clashed. John Prip, who replaced Morton, felt that the problem stemmed from the fact that Morton represented more of a purely esthetic approach which did not fit in well with the school's practical philosophy.
In protest to Morton's departure, Pearson left SAC at the end of his first year with the intention of becoming a producing craftsman. When informed of Pearson's decision, Morton told him he would never survive on his own unless he knew how to make jewelry. Consequently Morton, using his apartment as a classroom, gave Pearson a one-month crash course in jewelry making which proved invaluable to Pearson when he set up his shop in Alfred.
In 1948 Harold Brennan was hired as director of SAC. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the school was the faculty he created. In the early years especially, he recruited vigorously in Scandinavia because there were almost no master craftsmen in America. "I knew that a good school meant a good faculty. A group of superior teachers generated a dynamism much greater than the sum of their talents," Brennan said recently. "So finding good teachers was my principal job." Brennan hired people with strong beliefs and gave them free reign, with very little administrative interference.
In 1948 one of the newly hired Scandinavian teachers was John Prip. Although Prip was born in the United States, his family returned to their native Denmark when he was 10 years old. Sixteen years later, as a fourth-generation silversmith, Prip was content with his environment in Denmark, but was curious about his country of origin. Because of the war he had been unable to travel. Then through the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts he heard about the job opening at SAC in Alfred. At age 26 he joined the faculty.
Coming from a trade background Prip brought with him a knowledge of how to earn a living as a producing craftsman. When asked recently what his artistic philosophy was at the time, he answered, "I never thought in terms of having a philosophy. In Denmark I had a 'philosophy' based on the reality of the situation—you did what you were told. It was very technically oriented. At Alfred the school already had a well-formed philosophy which I easily adjusted to. It was very practical—teach students to go out and make a dollar an hour."
Although equipped with a very practical outlook, Prip was immediately impressed with the freedom and inventiveness of American metalwork. "What was being done in America was more interesting to me (than what was being done in Europe)—the work of Margaret de Patta, Sam Kramer, Paul Lobel, Bob Winston and Phil Morton. Most had trained as sculptors or painters or in other design areas. They were self-taught in jewelry. The technical quality of American work wasn't very good, but it was done with spirit and determination and very often with a great deal of imagination."
For the first time in his metalsmithing career Prip was now free to experiment. "I was discovering so many new things," he recalls, "that I felt like a student myself." The inventiveness of Prip's forms went far beyond the Danish modern tradition he had been trained in. "Prip studied forms as a poet studies words," Albert Paley recently said in describing Prip's approach to metalwork.
Prip had no problem adjusting to the policy of emphasizing holloware, although he did experiment with jewelry. "My background was mostly holloware," he says. "There were very few sources to learn from at the time so you basically taught what you knew." The stress on holloware was further reinforced when SAC hosted two of the Handy & Harman workshops on the subject.
To Prip the spirit that pervaded SAC, primarily stemming from the post-war mood of America, was its most impressive asses. "People were tired and disillusioned after the war. Many saw crafts as an alternative way of life," he explains. "It was a really vigorous learning situation which everyone accepted wholeheartedly. We worked 'round the clock, seven days a week. If you locked the office, students would come through the chimney. The silver cabinet was always open. The school was loose and free as could be."
Although salaries were meager (Prip was paid $3200 per year in 1948), the faculty was too caught up in what they were doing to question the pay. "No one was asking, 'Do I get time and a half for overtime.' We lived our life around the school. We socialized together. We worked together," he recalls.
One result of the low salaries was to reinforce the founding principle of insisting that teachers be producing craftsmen. "I had to make things on the side and sell them to survive. It wasn't a question of whether I wanted to make things or make something occasionally to send to a show." With the production program still very much a part of the curriculum, once a month Prip loaded his station wagon with student and faculty goods and drove to America House in New York City.
In 1950 two events occurred at the school which had far-reaching effects. The first was the addition of ceramist Frans Wildenhain to the faculty. Trained at the Bauhaus in Germany, he had spent the war years in Holland as a production potter and teacher. Wildenhain, a strong, mature artist had a great influence on all departments. "He had a stature that other faculty members lacked," notes Ronald Pearson. "He challenged people, made them think." "He was more experienced and more worldly," Prip explains. "I was just scratching around. More than anyone working in metal, Wildenhain served as my mentor." According to Pearson, Wildenhain was instrumental in slowly changing the schools main emphasis from production of goods to esthetic concerns.
The second event in 1950 was the relocation of the school, this time to its permanent home at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. According to Harold Brennan, Mrs. Webb felt that the school ought to be in a larger community, where there was more access to a cultural life—music, dance, art galleries and citizens interested in the arts. It has also been suggested that SAC did not fit in well with Alfred University's highly technical orientation. The move resulted in both losses and gains for the school. Gone were some of the freewheeling ambiance and the closeness between students and faculty. As Prip explains, "Being part of an institute meant we were subject to institutional rules and regulations. But because we were in a separate building we were able to maintain our identity. We felt we were different from the rest of the Institute. We weren't institutional people."
However, the gains substantial. Access to a cultural community expanded the horizons of students and faculty. As a larger and better-financed institution, RIT was able to offer the school more funding for educational programs as well as an improved physical plant. And, indirectly, the move to Rochester may have made possible the opening of Shop 1, for it is unlikely that such a bold undertaking would have been attempted in the small town of Alfred.
Shop 1, a shop and gallery selling fine crafts, was founded in 1952 by SAC faculty member John Prip, Frans Wildenhain and woodworker Tage Frid, and Ronald Pearson, who moved his workshop to Rochester following SAC's move. Although it had no formal ties to the school, its influence on SAC was substantial and vice-versa. The incentive to open Shop 1 was due to the lack of existing outlets for selling crafts. "Pearson used to pack his work into his old Buick and cruise up and down the streets of a town looking for 'contemporary shops' that might buy his work," Prip remembers. "He could tell which shops sold contemporary goods because they always had an Eames chair and a rubber plant in the window."
The items displayed at Shop 1 and the exhibitions held were unquestionable influences on the students of SAC. Located around the corner from the school, the shop was a gathering place for students, faculty, customers and out-of-town, peripatetic craftsmen who detoured to Rochester expressly to visit it. Much of the intimacy and closeness SAC lost in its move was recovered at Shop 1. "So much revolved around it, both professionally and socially," Pearson recalls. "It was somewhat like Black Mountain College."
In 1954 John Prip decided to leave SAC to become a full-time producing craftsman. He was wary of becoming an institutional person at RIT, just putting in his time until retirement. As his replacement, he suggested his former associate Hans Christensen, then head of Georg Jensen's model department in Denmark. Because of Christensen's great technical knowledge and trade background, Prip knew he would be sympathetic to the aims of the school. Although Prip admired many American metalsmiths, he was afraid that these former painters and sculptors with their artistic point of view would clash with SAC's very practical approach. "The purpose of the school was to send people into the world to survive, not to become artists," Prip reiterates.
p style="text-align: justify;">With much coaxing, Christensen came to SAC in 1954 and firmly affixed his Danish Modern style to the metalsmithing department. He arrived with a well-though-out philosophy that adhered to the current modernist aesthetic. In an article in American Artist Harold Brennan described Christensen's approach to metalwork this way: He insists "that the design be practical—that is, it should handle easily, with the forms related to function and the structural means." In the same article Christensen is quoted as saying, "I feel that silver needs little ornament if any. The silver surface with its rich effect of light and shadow . . . makes decoration superfluous."
Christensen was critical of some of the trends he found in American jewelry. "I feel that jewelry design today should be questioned. Often it is but miniscule sculpture and sometimes that shapes developed—in order to make them visually rich—in such a fashion as to make them a hazard to the wearer and anyone who comes near her! It appears that there has been a too strenuous search for novelty in contemporary jewelry, and the resulting forms are usually suggestive of exaggeration and strain. Jewelry should decorate the wearer, always in character and secondary to her interest and personality . . . Also, it should be materially and structurally coherent—not just an aggregate of sculptural shapes reduced to pygmy scale."
As with Prip, Christensen's trade background and his belief in a student's need for technical training fit in well with SAC's practical approach. "I feel that students particularly in this country, are putting too much emphasis on becoming artists rather than on learning first to be good craftsmen." He was more comfortable with holloware, still the main focus of SAC metalworkers, than with jewelry. However, in later years, when interested in jewelry increased, Christensen began producing more jewelry.
Ronald Pearson remembers Christensen as a perfectionist. "He was a wonderful person, but sometimes difficult to work with." In the early years he emphasized design less than technique. "He believed in the Danish approach that once students had a firm technical background they could go on to other things."
In 1959 Pearson returned to SAC, this time as a member of the faculty. He still maintained an independent shop and felt his continuing work as a craftsman and designer formed the real basis for what was valuable in his teaching. Philosophically he agreed with Christensen that jewelry should be functional. "Jewelry is for the human form—to compliments it, not to use a person as a pedestal," Pearson still maintains.
As late as 1961, the last year Pearson taught at SAC, the issue of art versus craft had not become important. Even today Pearson is uncomfortable with it. "I don't like the concept of craft as art," he said recently. "Craft is an art." Like others at SAC, his aim was to produce beautiful crafts, not art.
Because Pearson was so involved in producing marketable goods, it is somewhat surprising that he was not more supportive of SAC's program of selling student work through America House. "I felt it wasn't very practical," he explains. "The students' work wasn't good enough. They weren't ready to be making things for sale. It conflicted with their efforts to develop skills." Pearson recalls that one of the original concepts behind student production of salable crafts was to earn money for students to help offset tuition fees. "But most students had the GI Bill and didn't need the money."
Although others were very strongly in favor of the production program, sometime in the early 60s, around the time RIT moved to its new campus, it was abandoned. "I don't honestly know how this change came about but it did," says Harold Brennan, "though I resisted it vigorously. Basically, there were probably two reasons: one, America House gradually lost steam, and bookkeeping and transporting work became more of a burden. And two, there was a transformation of the character of the metalworker, from artisan to artist. Many faculty and students became more interested in exhibiting than in selling and consequently they changed from being working professionals to being 'creative' artists."
This change of emphasis from producing craftsman to artist found full expression at SAC in 1969 when Albert Paley joined the faculty. Although Paley had been offered seven teaching positions upon graduation from Tyler School of Art, he chose SAC because he felt, "It had the most professional framework, one in which I could manifest my philosophical beliefs."
Paley's beliefs, greatly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the late 60s, were very different from those of his SAC predecessors. While holloware had reigned supreme at SAC from its founding, under Paley's tutelage jewelry came to the fore. "In the 30s, 40s and 50s holloware was a real social symbol and there was a market for it," Paley explains. "But in the 60s, traditional values changed the holloware became a symbol of the lifestyle that many were rejecting. Contemporary jewelry, on the other hand, allowed you to express yourself as an individual. It projected an image of nonconformity which was an important aspect of the 60s social revolution."
Paley embodied the changed role of the craftsman in society, "Prior to the 60s, craftsmen were makers, artists were thinkers," Paley recalls. "I tried to bring crafts to the level of art by intellectualizing about it—by giving it more of an intellectual context. I resented the image of the humble craftsman."
His jewelry was equally intellectual. "I was concerned purely with esthetics, not with jewelry as a fashion accessory. My jewelry was meant for someone who was rejecting established fashion trends and who wanted to assert her own individuality."
In 1972 Paley resigned from SAC to pursue other options that offered him the flexibility he needed. In his place Gary Griffin, fresh from graduate school at Tyler, was hired.
Griffin, well versed in craft philosophy and training, continued to pursue the concept of the artist-craftsman, a label considered progressive in the 60s. In a continuing effort to dissolve the boundaries between "art" and "crafts", Griffin dropped one of crafts' parameters—that of functionalism, but still maintained crafts' dictums of truth to materials and thought through process. But by the late 70s and early 80s the term artist-craftsman had become passé. Griffin, now doing one-of-a-kind sculpture, found that he was no longer a craftsman at all, but an artist.
With the beginning of the new 1984-85 academic year, once again the tide at SAC may be turning. The current metalsmithing teachers, Leonard Urso and Mark Stanitz, have both worked as producing craftsmen before being hired to teach. Their functional pieces seem to have more in common with the craft traditions of the early years of SAC than with those of the past 15 years. Echoing the original intentions of SAC than with those of the past 15 years. Echoing the original intentions of SAC, Urso says his main function as a teacher is to train students to survive within their field once they leave school. He is focusing on teaching them to design for industry and fashion and to use the computer as a business tool, as well as to become "artists" if they so choose. He feels creative thinking is the key to survival today.
This new academic year also witnessed the appointment of Albert Paley and woodworker Wendell Castle as tenured professors and artists-in-residence at SAC. Assigned to no regular teaching responsibilities, their primary job will be to organize national and international seminars. With these appointments, RIT has reaffirmed its commitment to crafts. As college President M. Richard Rose said, "This reinforces RIT's position at the forefront of institutions nurturing the art of the craftsman throughout the world."
Now in its 41st year, it is impressive that SAC still has the youthful vigor to initiate new programs such as the artists-in-residence. The fact that the School for American Craftsmen has been able to change as society has changed, yet still maintain its original purpose, "to develop and raise the standards of the hand arts in the United States," is surely one of its greatest strengths.
- Conversation with John Prip, September 10, 1984. All other information and quotes about Prip, unless otherwise noted, are based on this conversation.
- Johnston, Robert, "25th Anniversary," published by Rochester Institute of Technology to commemorate SAC's 25th year at RIT, 1975, unnumbered pages.
- "School for American Craftsmen New England Division, Hanover, New Hampshire," Craft Horizons (August 1945), p. 8.
- "What's New Under the Sun," Craft Horizons (August 1944), p. 1.
- Craft Horizons (August 1945), p. 8.
- Craft Horizons (August 1944), p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- "News of Educational and Cooperative Councils and the Affiliated Groups," Craft Horizons (November 1944), p. 26.
- Craft Horizons (August 1945), p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Conversation with Ronald Pearson, September 10, 1984. All other information and quotes about Pearson, unless otherwise noted, are based on this conversation.
- Ronald Pearson and John Prip, "Metals: A Discussion," Craft Horizons (June 1966), p. 30.
- Last sentence of paragraph only: Daniel Rhodes, "Form in Silver by Ronald Pearson," Craft Horizons (November 1960), p. 17. (Rest of paragraph is based on conversation with Pearson 9/10/84.)
- Letter from Harold Brennan, September 14, 1984. All other information and quotes about Brennan, unless otherwise stated, are based on this letter.
- Conversation with Albert Paley, September 7, 1984. All other information and quotes about Paley, unless otherwise stated, are based on this conversation.
- Pearson and Prip, Craft Horizons (June 1966), p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 30.
- Conversation with Barbara Cowles, former manager of Shop 1, and wife of faculty member Hobart Cowles.
- Letter from Harold Brennan, September 14, 1984.
- Harold Brennan, "Three Rochester Craftsmen," American Artist (June 1958), p. 88.
- Ibid., p. 88.
- Hands Christensen, "Hans Christensen," Design Quarterly (1957), p. 6.
- Rhodes, p. 21.
- Conversation with Albert Paley, September 7, 1984.
- Conversation with Leonard Urso, September 18, 1984.
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